Wight Life

The Royal Yacht Squadron

by Rachel Hotham

Picture of cowes

IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1815, the year of Waterloo. War-weary veterans flocked to Cowes to relax in the pleasant social life of the place and regain their health yachting. One of these was the Earl of Uxbridge (later Lord Anglesey) who had left a leg on the battlefield; there was also the Hon Charles Pelham (later Lord Yarborough), a born seaman, and many others with a love of ships and the sea. Forty-two of these gentlemen banded themselves together to form a club called simply The Yacht Club; they sailed and dined together, and to get the thing going, a modest subscription of two guineas was proposed with an entrance fee of three guineas. Future members, they decided, would be elected by ballot and all must own a yacht of at least ten tons.

Cowes was the ideal place for a yacht club, providing a sheltered harbour and deep-water anchorage, proximity to the naval base at Portsmouth and access to London by the Southampton sailing packet. Long used to catering for the navy, Cowes could offer boat-building facilities, ropes, sails, provisions and expert seamen as crews; in fact, everything a yachtman required. The club was really set on its feet in 1817 when the Prince Regent expressed a wish to become a member and took a house on the Parade, later known as the Kings House; Osborne Court now stands on the site. When he became King George IV in 1820 he conferred the title 'The Royal Yacht Club'.

By 1823 there were 71 civil members and 132 naval members; the tonnage of club yachts totalled 5,000 and about 500 local seamen were employed. There was no fixed headquarters, and dinners and meetings were held at a hotel in East Cowes or at the Thatched House tavern in London. As a clubhouse was needed a house on the Parade next to the Kings House (now the Gloster Hotel) was leased in 1825; and a pavilion was erected overlooking the sea from which spectators could enjoy the sights. To pay for all this, the subscription was raised to £5, then £8 with an entrance fee of £10, and members were obliged to own a yacht of over 30 tons. A club uniform was designed and the first Commodore, Lord Yarborough, elected.

Most yachts were designed as roomy cruisers, 'the floating equivalent of a very comfortable villa', free of taxes and noisy neighbours. But England still suffered from war-phobia after 20 years of hostilities with France; so, many yachts were capable of transformation into fighting ships at short notice. Lord Yarborough's 'Falcon It' of 351 tons, built at Wootton Bridge in 1824, resembled a naval frigate with 20 guns bristling from her ports, a naval officer in charge, and a crew trained in naval discipline — including the cat-o'-nine-tails! Pistols and cutlasses were stored below. Sometimes the owner would take on four months' provisions and cruise menacingly along the coasts of France. So close was the link with the Navy that naval officers were admitted as honorary members and, even today, pay only one tenth of the normal subscription. Nothing like our modern yacht-racing took place; there were races for pilot-cutters and fishing vessels, but for Club members there were just organised reviews resembling naval exercises. A gun was fired and a stately procession of smartly turned-out yachts would proceed to sea, round a mark and return; a splendid sight, no doubt, but a little dull. However, a member with fast boat and a taste for excitement could challenge another boat to a sailing duel; the club would arrange a course and fire guns for the start; popular interest could rise to fever pitch when large sums were wagered on the contest. Gradually, cutters and schooners replaced the slow square-rigged yachts with their heavy armament. Instead of chasing the French, English yachtsmen took to chasing each other!

The year 1826 can be said to mark the beginning of Cowes Regatta. On Thursday August 10th the Club organised a race for members' yachts and offered a gold cup worth 100 sovereigns to the winner; there were seven competitors. In the evening a Ball was held at the East Cowes Hotel. On the Friday there was a club dinner, and a display of fireworks on the Parade wound up the proceedings. Things have not changed much. Townspeople did a roaring trade and, wishing to prolong their profitable season, whipped up subscriptions for a 'Town Cup' to be raced for in September. Cowes still has its Town Regatta. The following year, local ladies raised £150 for the Ladies Challenge Cup, and in 1827 George IV presented the Kings Cup to be contested annually on his birthday, August 12th. This was the first of a long line of king's and queen's cups.

The start of competitive yacht racing and the advent of steam focused attention on speed as the prime quality of a sailing ship. Members of the Royal Yacht Club spent thousands of pounds building experimental vessels, trying out novel designs; in fact they provided the Admiralty with a great deal of free research. Some of the new yachts made rings round the conservatively designed Club's men-of-war manoeuvering off Spithead. In recognition of the club's services to naval architecture and to the navy in training seamen and maintaining what was in effect a reserve fleet, the Admiralty granted it in 1829 the privilege of flying the flag of the navy, the white ensign. Four years later the King, as an acknowledgement of the national utility of the Royal Yacht Club, granted it the title of 'Royal Yacht Squadron' of which the sovereign was to be the head. Prince Philip fills this role today.

By 1834 there were 148 members, 101 yachts and 1200 seamen employed. In 1835 the library was founded, and the Club had become internationally famous. In 1847, Czar Nicholas of Russia joined, and 1851 saw the New York Yacht Club's challenger, the schooner 'America', bear away the Club Cup after a race round the Island. It was time to look for a more permanent clubhouse.

An ideal site presented itself at Cowes Castle, the old circular Tudor fort which had been turned into a residence for the Governor of the Island, Lord Anglesey. In 1856 a lease was obtained from the Crown and purchase was later effected. The plain military-style house, inside its massive battlements, was transformed into a noble clubhouse at a cost of some £7,000. The platform on which guns had been rolled out was glassed in to form a chartroom equipped with telescopes and aids to navigation. This is now the race officers' starting platform. Elaborate roofs and gables were added and a west tower reminiscent of a French chateau built on the site of the old kitchen. Shrubs were uprooted at the back and replaced by the famous lawn where Victorian beauties displayed their charms; it soon became the focus of fashionable society, and it was all ready in time for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1863 when he brought his bride Alexandra to Cowes. Banners floated in the High Street proclaiming:— 'Welcome, Danish Rose'. He was Commodore for 19 years and during his reign as Edward VII, the Club basked in royal sunshine. George V was also a keen sailor.

Since then two wars have come and gone. In 1939 the old castle once more became of 'national utility' and was handed over to the Admiralty; the D-Day invasion plans were supervised from there. In the 1942 raids, a bomb fell alongside the west tower, but embedding itself in the clay soil, burst directly upwards, doing only superficial damage.

What of today? We must admit the Squadron is no longer the Yacht Club it once was; its function as promoter and arbitrator of yacht racing has been taken over by the Royal Yachting Association. Two other royal clubs have sprung up within a stone's throw, and the Island Sailing Club in the High Street has over 4,000 members. Of course, its incomparable starting line with the battery of brass cannon is used for important events like the Round-the-Island race in July which attracts over 400 competitors, and for the Fastnet race for large cruisers at the end of Cowes week. But the RYS now takes its turn with the other Cowes clubs in staging a non-stop season of regattas and sailing events lasting from May to October.

A small and exclusive club is expensive to run and the subscription has gone up to £50 with an entrance fee of £150. But let it not be thought that the Squadron is the playground of the idle. Rule 1 states firmly that only gentlemen actively interested in yachting or yacht racing will be considered as members. Election is by ballot and one black ball in ten will exclude.

A great change has come over the yachting scene. Although large handsome yachts are still seen flying the Squadron burgee, they are few in comparison with the numbers of small craft, mostly owner-sailed and crewed by relatives and friends. Syndicates and partnerships help to reduce costs. Lady crews are not uncommon. Gone are the Edwardian beauties sitting on the lawn in satins and feather boas, shading their complexions with parasols. Clad in trim navy and white, ladies now emerge for tea, sunburnt from racing and concealing salt-sprayed hair. Postmortems on the day's events take place over the tea tables.

Picture of Royal Yacht Squadron Headquarters

In 1964 a great innovation took place; wives, daughters and sisters of members were admitted as lady associate members. A changing room with bath and hair dryer was built for them; their snug little crimson walled dining-room sees many a cheerful mixed party. The blue and cream drawing room provides easy chairs and newspapers, and the circular glass-fronted balcony built on stilts makes an incomparable after-dinner lounge with a view right down the Solent towards the setting sun. The new additions have been so cleverly built with old matching stone brought from the demolished East Cowes castle that you cannot tell the old from the new.

Membership now stands at around 360 with about 100 naval members and 180 lady associates. Year by year, the traditional pattern repeats itself in Cowes Week. The brass cannons are fired from the battery to start the races; cups are presented on the lawn, tea is served every afternoon from the marquees. On the Monday, the chart-room is decked with flags, the platform polished for the Squadron Ball and supper tables are hidden in mermaid's caves and cosy nooks contrived within the old walls.

Club silver is displayed on the huge table for the members' dinner, and rugs spread on the Tudor battlements to aftord front seats for the fireworks on the final Friday. I can imagine those forty-two original members who started it all in 1815 nodding approval from their nautical heaven and wishing us 'Good sailing in 1973'.